By John Egbokhan, who was in Germany
The story of Bundesliga would be incomplete if the contributions of African football stars, who have lit up the German top-flight are not chronicled for future generations.
From the days of yore when the likes of Anthony Baffoe, Anthony Yeboah, Austin Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Jonathan Akpoborie, Ossei Kuffur dazzled the world with their soccer tricks, to the likes of Pierre Emercik Aubameyang, Naby Keita and Leon Balogun , footballers from the mother planet continue to wield a positive influence on the football narrative of the Bundesliga.
During a recent visit to Germany on the invitation of Bundesliga International and StarTimes pay television network, the storyline of African players was further accentuated by the good performances of some players, who are making waves on a weekly basis, thereby creating further openings for those players still playing on the continent to get a look-in from prospective Bundesliga clubs.
One can be forgiven to write that no African player has had a more telling effect on the Bundesliga than former Super Eagles captain, Austin Okocha, who would forever be remembered for that dazzling, dizzying and dribbling solo-goal-scoring run against German great Oliver Khan, during his Bundesliga spell with Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1990s.
Okocha joined Eintracht Frankfurt in December 1991, linking up with Black Stars legend, Yeboah. Bundesliga history would be incomplete without mentioning one of the highlights of Okocha, who soared to Olympian heights when he scored against Karlsruher, dribbling in the penalty box and slotting the ball past goalkeeper Khan, even going past some players twice.
The goal was voted Goal of the Season by many soccer magazines, and also voted as 1993 Goal of the Year by viewers of Sportschau (an ARD German TV sports program) in 1995, His sublime skills and tremendous tricks brought joy to fans of Eintracht Frankfurt and lit up Germany’s top division for many years.
Described by bundesliga.com as ‘’an attacking wizard who left Bundesliga defences mesmerised’’, Okocha made it his intention to travel to Germany on vacation having watched Europe’s biggest economy win the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. The skills he learned as a precocious kid on the streets of Enugu and later at Rangers International, captivated the coaches of third-tier Borussia Neunkirchen, with whom Okocha enjoyed a trial on account of a friend who played there.
According to the account of the German website, ‘’word of his tremendous talent and slaloming, goal-bound runs from the centre circle quickly spread and after a brief spell at FC Saarbrücken, the future Olympic Gold medallist was offered the grandest stage on which to test his skills by Eintracht Frankfurt. The Bundesliga was about to be bewildered by the quick feet, spellbinding step-overs, dream-like dribbles and eye-catching creativity of one of the developing stars, and characters, of the world game.
Okocha delighted on the global level too, and formed part of a Nigerian side that received the nickname, The Dream Team, which won soccer gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in USA, coming two years after the Super Eagles were crowned continental champions in Tunisia, with Okocha on board.
Following such a successful spell in the Bundesliga, Okocha made a big-money move to the Turkish league with Fenerbahce, before moving to PSG, and Premier League side, Bolton Wanderers, among others.
It is rather instructive to note that Okocha and Yeboah, were later embroiled with a feud with manager Jupp Heynckes, who was then their coach, which led to their departure from the club.
During the course of his sojourn in Germany from 1991 to 1996, Okocha made 90 appearances, scoring 16 goals, while Yeboah, who played between 1990 and 1995, making 123 appearances, with 68 goals to his credit, which at that time was the best scoring record by an African in the German top-flight.
The former Leeds United forward, who expressed shock over the playing style in the English league, during his time at Leeds, would later return to Germany to play for Hamburg between 1997 and 2001, netting 28 in 100 appearances, bringing his Bundesliga goalscoring tally to 96, an eye-popping feat by the Ghanaian export to one of Europe’s highly rated football leagues.
Germany was where Yeboah made his name, winning the Bundesliga top-scorer award in 1993 and 1994 for Eintracht Frankfurt.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Gabonese captain, who until last December, was playing for Dortmund, holds the record of the most goals by an African, finding the back of the net 98 times during six fruitful seasons in the Bundesliga harvest field from 2013 to 2018 .
To say that Aubameyang, winner of the CAF African Player of the year award in 2015 has been a distinguished ambassador of Africa in the Bundesliga is an understatement, as he is the first Gabonese player to turn out in Germany’s top flight, guaranteeing the Arsenal forward a sure place in the Bundesliga history books, as well as being the top African goal scorer in the league.
Winner of several individual awards, including the Bundesliga Player of the Year gong in 2016, the heroics of Aubameyang are still being talked about in Dortmund, even as the club struggle to fill the vacuum left by their prolific speed-star, who joined Arsenal in the winter transfer season.
At the last count, Ghana, with 33 players, has the highest number of players to have played in the Bungesliga. Even the great Abedi Pele starred in the Bundesliga, playing for Bayern Munich between 1996 and 1998. Nicknamed the Diplomat because his father was a diplomat, Baffoe, who was born in Germany, was less diplomatic with the treatment he reserved for opposition forwards. His attacking instincts, he originally played as a forward for Cologne, stayed with him when he turned into a full-back, with his dynamic runs and crosses, getting Bundesliga fans on the tentacles of their seats.
Regarded by Bundesliga archivists as one of the architects of the most spectacular stories in German football, helping Bundesliga 2 side Stuttgarter Kickers reach the final of the DFB Cup, where he set up the opening goal for the rank outsiders before being beaten 3-1 by Bundesliga champions Hamburg in front of 76,000 fans in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, Baffoe’s strides remain legendary.
In total, he featured in 74 Bundesliga games for Cologne and Fortuna Düsseldorf, scoring four goals, as well as his 25 international caps for Ghana, thanks to his roots with the African country. He has since returned to Ghana, where he once worked as the General Secretary of the Professional Footballers Association of Ghana, as well as running a thriving business empire.
Nigeria has exported 27 stars to the German top-flight, with the likes of former Eagles centre back, Taribo West, who featured for Kaiserslautern between 2001 and 2002, Victor Ikpeba of Dortmund, Victor Agali of Hansa Rostok and Schalke, Obafemi Martins of Wolfsburg, Jonathan Akpoborie and Haruna Babangida, all horning their nests in the league rated as the best in terms of attendances.
Of recent, Nigerians who have been cultivating the Bundesliga fields include 2018 World Cup-bound centre back Leon Balogun of Mainz and forward Anthony Ujah.
Cameroon has exproted 26 players to the Bundesliga, with former Indomitable Lions captain, Rigobert Song and Joel Matip leading the line-up of an all-star cast list.
Even though he bade a fond farewell at the weekend, Naby Keita’s imprints on the Bundesliga sands of time remain indelible at RB Leipzig, with the midfielder being one of the five Guinean players to have played in the German league.
Before his summer move to Liverpool, the 23-year-old played an integral role in Leipzig’s surprise challenge for the Bundesliga title, with the club finishing second behind Bayern Munich in 2017 and qualifying for the Champions League in the process. He joined Leipzig for £9.35m but is going to Liverpool for as much £48m this summer.
Keita ended the 2017 season with an overall rating of 7.60, according to whoscored.com, ranking him fifth in the Bundesliga, behind Thiago Alcantara (8.28), Arjen Robben (7.82), Emil Forsberg (7.75) and Robert Lewandowski (7.74).
In all, Africa has shipped out 175 of its best players to the Bundesliga, with Zimbabwe and Uganda accounting for one respectively, Zambia (3), Tunisia (16), Togo (4), South Africa (9), Sierra Leone (1), Senegal (18),Algeria (13), Angola (4), Benin Republic (2), Burkina Faso (4), Democratic Republic of Congo (4) and Egypt sending six of its prized players to the German league.
Completing the list of players to have left Africa to play in the Bundesliga are the likes of Gambia (3), Guinea Bissau (1), Ivory Coast (13), Mali (5), Morocco (15), Mozambique (1) and Namibia with two players.
But to become a success in the Bundesliga, an aspiring African export to Germany must imbibe the German ethic of discipline.
Driving home this point during a conversation with Sporting Vanguard at the Classic Cars Museum in Frankfurt, Henning Brinkmann of Bundesliga International, said, ‘’for an African player to excel in the Bundesliga, he must be disciplined. That is the whole essence of what we Germans stand for and Africa obviously plays a big role in the Bundesliga because we have a strong connection to African players like Jay Jay Okocha, Anthony Baffore and others.
”He had an influence on how the playing pattern in the Bundesliga developed, especially in the 1990s, with his creative and skilful display. So we have to give thanks to Africa in the same way for the influence on the Bundesliga and football in Germany.
”Even today, we have so many influence on the Bundesliga by the Africans so the root is there and this is what we want to build upon, so that many more stars will shine and we are doing it with StarTimes, who we are proud to partner with in the development across all fronts”, added Brinkmann.